Thursday 5 February 2015

2015 Rocky Raccoon 100 - Running Happy

The great thing about running long is that no matter what you plan for, or how well you think you know your body, the course, the weather, or your gear, something unexpected always turns up to make you think.  At this year's Rocky Raccoon 100, I got to enjoy a lot of my plans going right, and a few going ever so awry.  The key word there is "enjoy," and in spite of my newly super-sized big toes, I really did enjoy pretty much every minute of my race.

To say that this year's event has been a key goal ever since last year's disappointing DNF would be an understatement.  Most of my gear reviewing has been based around fixing weaknesses identified last year.  The races I have run have had little to do with this year's attempt, but the many races I chose not to run were almost all about making sure I had the legs to go the distance.  What can I say?  That DNF hurt a lot, and I wasn't in the mood to let it happen again.

So, what went right?  The pre-race build up was the first thing I got right.  The goal was to arrive in Huntsville in a positive frame of mind.  The next improvement on last year was to have my own food for the entire race, so the aid stations were top-up and back-up, rather than the mainstay of my nutrition.  I geared my choices early on to things that I would want to eat even when not feeling hungry, because I've found that I feel hungry about 5 minutes before I bonk.  The final plan that worked out better than 2014 was to use a very light bottle belt instead of a race vest - I'd tested the Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Endure Belt repeatedly and knew it would do the job and give me the chance to dissipate heat more efficiently than a vest would.  With those pieces in place, together with a better training block in the Fall, I started and ran the whole race with no concern about whether I'd finish, and with a lot of confidence that a PB was completely achievable.

However, something always goes wrong in an ultra - you're out there too long for it not to.  I had some particularly exciting lighting problems, and did a bit of a number on my big toes with a few of the roots along the way.  But, because I felt positive throughout, I never really got down about the problems - I just set about finding solutions or carried on regardless.  I think a lot of that positivity was helped by calorie-loading early on and maintaining a manageable pace - so I didn't have a major energy dip until quite close to the end.

Overall, I ran happy - and running happy makes everything else that much easier to put into perspective.  For the details & pics, keep reading!


The plan was to relax and catch up with family while we took an extra couple of days to acclimate to the local weather.  Since Nic is doing the 50 (one week after the 100), and had the joy of a winter cold in mid-January, the plan also included a few good runs on local trails in Austin & Round Rock to make sure we were building up to the race well.

Great weather for the build-up runs - Lady Bird Lake looking beautiful in the warm sun.
Taking my EVRC club vest out for a spin in 20C temps - High Summer in January!!

It's always important to include recovery and enjoyment into any training schedule, and the fine weather in the week before race day certainly encouraged some relaxing time outdoors.

Sunshine and warmth begets the occasional afternoon libation.

If you've never been here, you've missed out on some of the most amazing donuts in the land.  Eat more than one, though, and you may have to take up ultras to keep the weight off.
All told, the week leading up to the race was perfect.  We arrived on Friday in Huntsville with me excited and ready to run, and Nic delighted to take a few hours recce-ing the 50 route alone (ie without me yapping incessantly).

Raven Lake looking good in the sun on Nic's run

Nic capturing the evening light on the boardwalk.

While Nic enjoyed some well-earned peace, I meandered over to packet pickup, enjoyed the race briefing, and caught up with some fellow runners.  I managed to catch up with Stephen Rodgers, who was kilted up for the event, and we reminisced over the 2014 humidity trial (he passed the test, finishing in the freezing rain after the sweltering Saturday).  I also had the joy of meeting Tony Nguyen, who takes running happy to a whole new level of big smiles and super enthusiasm.  I dropped my DamNation drop-bag, started panicking over where I'd packed my rain jackets (eventually found in time for the final sort-out), and then picked up Nic for an early dinner.

Like so many of the runners, we were up at stupid-o'clock (3:45am) to allow plenty of time to get through the queues into Huntsville State Park.  While I got set up at Dogwood, Nic headed off to the Nature Center station, which would be her base with Dad for the day.  Pre-race, I caught up with Brits Chris Mills and James Elson.  James would be shooting for a high placing, while Chris and I were both aiming for sub-24.  Time flew quickly, and before I had time to get properly nervous, we were off and running.

Wrapped up in the chilly wee hours.

I set myself towards the back half of the 367-strong field, knowing that a gentle walk-jog for the first 5km would be a good way to ease through the early (dark) miles without blowing a lot of energy and hopefully without catching too many roots. I was looking for a 3:50-4:00 first lap, with plenty of food and drink along the way.  Nic was supplying me with rather tasty BLT wraps for the first few hours, and I looked forward to each of my snack-break uphills.  With yummy snacks, easy running, and friendly faces around, I thoroughly enjoyed my 20mi warm-up.  That first lap went pretty much perfectly (3:52).  By starting in the back, I was constantly passing people rather than running with them.  While not the most sociable way to spend the morning, it meant that I could exchange pleasantries but avoided accidentally tapping into someone else's pace - a mistake I made repeatedly in 2014.  It also gave me the opportunity to play a little chatty leapfrog with Brandon Holloway (25:50) and Roy Pirrung (26:44) as our run/walk strategies overlapped.

Feeling fresh after the first lap

Much like the first lap, the second was full of gentle running, eating (now with a couple of hummus wraps thrown into the mix), walking up hills, and a bit of chit-chat with runners as we passed and re-passed with our various run/walk strategies.  Nic and Dad continued to look after me like pros at the 3 accessible aid stations.  Nic and I had already agreed that her job was to be bossy, and my job was to do what I was told - never easy, but it worked beautifully on the day.  The roots started to get a bit bigger and easier to trip over, and the hills seemed slightly longer and steeper than on lap one, but I was still in a happy place, bimbling along through the peaceful woods.  By now, the out-and-back segments were a bit trickier, since runners were running in both directions on the narrow trail.  It was a chance to exchange encouraging words (leading to me thinking of them as the "Good job!" sections) and also see how others were getting on.  By the time I'd reached 30 miles, I started to feel a hot spot on my right heel, so stopped and patched it before it became a problem.  Messing about with the sock, I noticed a stinging feeling on my big toe, so had a look, and sure enough found some blisters starting up.  I hadn't felt anything at all, so counted myself lucky, applied a couple of blister plasters, and got moving again.  The few minutes lost tipped me a little outside schedule for the lap (4:01), but it was time very well spent.  The heat started to get a bit much, so I reverted to my youth and bared my pasty torso on the run for the first time in decades, and felt much better for all the extra air.

Picture? I was topless, and the glare was just too much for the camera.

The goal for lap 3 was to avoid over-heating and over-working, so that I'd still have something in the tank for the final 40.  Really, it's best not to think too hard in the middle section about things like "next time I'm here, it's only 40 miles left to go!".  So, I kept concentrating on the time it would take to the next aid station, whether I was eating enough, drinking enough, or getting my feet high enough.  Food and drink were fine.  My feet, however, were not always getting over the roots, and I started to kick the whatsit out of my big toes.  Plenty of times I just glanced off the little hazards, but every so often I would catch one flush on the big toe and feel a sharp pain shoot through my whole foot.  I guess the upside was that I was still moving fast enough to hit the roots hard.  Somehow (probably due to reasonable training and plenty of early calories), I maintained a cheery mood and shrugged off the blows as "well, who needs toenails anyway?".  In about a week, I expect I'll be looking at my nail-less toes and wishing I had done a better job of getting my feet up.  I finished the lap in good time for Nic and Dad to get me set up for the night before they headed off for some well-earned rest (4:39).  The heat was slowing me down, but not taking a long-term toll like it had the year before.

Still topless - apparently people were turned to stone by the sight.

Lap 4 took the race into proper problem-solving mode.  It was dark by the time I left Dogwood for the penultimate time, and I forgot to pick up my spare batteries.  I knew the dark laps would be slower than the light ones, if only because I'd be tired and having to take a bit more care on the roots.  Early in the loop, I had a brief chance to chat with Scott Dunlap (new PR of 17:06, age-group win) - a big boost for me since he was a big inspiration for me to set up on my own.  At DamNation, before heading out for 10km of dark single-track, a volunteer asked if I had my spare batteries.  I thought briefly and realized that they were still at Dogwood.  Hoping that my new LED Lenser SEO7R would still have plenty of charge on it from the morning, I set off into the darkness.  A mile later, the light switched to low power.  Compound errors:  I hadn't really learned to use the SEO functionality or the battery-saving function, and had been running fairly high-powered to make sure I didn't catch too many roots.  So, I walked up the hill in very dim light, hoping that a passing runner might have spare AAA batteries I could use.  After a few AA carriers, Ace Gallegos offered me his spare light - which was back at DamNation.  Ace was shooting for a 22hr finish and was motoring through a painful ITB, so I stuck to him like glue.  I kept my light on the lowest power and widest angle to give some ambient light, and Ace had his spot on quite bright, picking out the major trip hazards.  Every now and then, I missed one with the eyes and found it with the toes, and I hit the ground at least twice on that section (I was more focused on sticking to Ace than anything else, so I really don't know how many times I tripped, fell, or turned an ankle).  We got back to the aid station still in good time for a 22hr, and Ace very kindly sorted me out with a light before taking some time to work on his leg.  I finished the lap with an opportunity to grab a 22hr, and ample time to get the sub-24.  After sorting out my light with fresh batteries, returning Ace's with some fresh batteries, and grabbing my backup H7R for some secondary lighting, I grabbed my lap-5 gels and set out aiming for a 4am finish.

Lap 5 was a tale of two halves.  With the SEO7R on my head providing a mid-power wide angle, and my H7R on high-power spot focus any time I was running, I was able to keep moving at a pretty good pace.  Nature Center came and went, with my pace near enough to 14min/mi.  DamNation arrived in similar fashion.   I was starting to properly tire by the time I got to the half way point, but was still looking at a 4:00-4:15 finish time, if I could maintain my effort level.  I knew the second half of the loop was potentially faster, but I also had 90 miles in my legs and was definitely feeling it.  The final visit to DamNation came at around 1:50, and I'd been working hard on that loop to keep the potential for that 4am finish.  Once I got off the Dam Road and back onto the single track, though, the effort of staying on plan A+ bit back, and I knew it was time for a longish walk.  I also realised I needed to put in some new batteries to keep the bright light (maybe next time I'll get some new ones instead of picking up a few 2-year old ones.  Thus far, I'd managed to avoid walking on the flats for anything other than comfort break, aid station, or some of the really rooty sections where a 10s walk is better than a face-plant.  Now, I knew I was bonking a bit, so I put on a fastish walk, popped my last 2 gels, aiming for 30-40 minutes of walking.  I figured the difference between 2 20-minute miles and 2 15-minute miles was pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  The 22hr finish was gone, so the next goal was a PB (previous 23:17, on a much easier course).  After 20 minutes, I was on some good running track and got back to running - I couldn't bring myself to miss out on flat fire road.  It wasn't fast, and it wasn't pretty, but it was kind of like running.  My lights started dimming a bit (or possibly it was my brain), so I got a bit paranoid that I was going to end up in the dark again and started to push harder on the easy footing and eased off on the trippy bits.  I dropped nearly 40 minutes over that last 8 miles, but ended with a strong run on the nice, flat final straight to cheers from Nic and Dad, who'd crawled out of bed at way-too-early to see me finish.

Hurrah - finished with time for a nap before breakfast!

We enjoyed the euphoria of the finish (22:41), and headed to the car, and just about then the happy fell away as my battered toes started to say hello.  Sunday was a bit rough, but it was all made better by a little anesthetic in the evening.

Ice treatment made everything better!


Salomon Fellraisers  (Run Stuff)
Injinji Performance 2.0 Trail Socks (ULTRAmarathonRunningStore)
Dirty Girl Gaiters (UMRS)
Ancient Brooks shorts
Cotswold Running Singlet (Run Stuff)
2x Cotswold Running Short-sleeved T-Shirts (Run Stuff)
dhb Arm Warmers
Cotswold Running Buff
Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Endure Belt (UMRS)
LED Lenser H7R and SEO7R head torches (UMRS)

Food (as best as I remember):

4.5 BLT wraps (2 rashers of bacon, a bit of mayo, lettuce, tomato in a small tortilla)
2 hummus wraps
9 Oreo cookies
3 TORQ pineapple & ginger energy bars
1 large Clif Chocolate Mint Builders Bars
~5 small Clif Chocolate Mint Builders Bars
~15 Hammer salt tablets
4 TORQ Energy gels
4 TORQ Energy caffeinated gels
4 Gu isotonic tablets

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